In the waning days of his presidential term, Donald Trump caused quite the backlash when his administration rushed through a flurry of executions, in the process becoming the president who has presided over the most federal executions since 1963.
This is far from a situation specific to the United States, however. 53 countries across the globe still have capital punishment in place. What’s more, in recent years, polls from the populations of various countries including Canada and the United Kingdom have illustrated a desire for reinstating the death penalty. With such dramatic repercussions at play, this is an issue worth weighing and considering heavily.
Putting aside the less concrete issue of whether some criminals deserve to be executed, is the death penalty actually beneficial to society, or should the idea be put down altogether?
Probably the greatest argument against it is its cost in human life. The criminal justice system is far from perfect, and false convictions happen at a horrifying rate. For one, eyewitness testimony is infamously unreliable, and yet, it remains as one of the founding pillars of our justice system. What’s more, over time, the standards for what kind of science is admissible in the courtroom are constantly in flux, and what once was considered concrete evidence is now less than rigorous. For example, of all the people exonerated by DNA evidence in the USA between 1989 and 2015, 71% had been convicted based on “science” which we now recognize as being shoddy, exaggerated, or incorrect.
Considering all of this, studies using conservative figures estimate that anywhere from 2-10% of all prosecutions end in a false conviction. That is a staggering amount and not one that lends enough confidence to give the state the power to execute its prisoners. At least in the case of life imprisonment, there is always the chance for an exoneration, whereas there is no turning back from an execution.
Another strongly cited reason in favor of capital punishment is its perceived ability to deter future offenses. While the logic of this makes sense, the data just doesn’t support it. For one, how could the death penalty “deter” someone from so-called “crimes of passion”, or impulsive actions at the moment? The person undertaking these actions is already not thinking rationally, so capital punishment is usually the last thing running through their mind. More broadly, however, the system of the death penalty is poorly designed if one of its goals is deterrence. In the US, the average time between conviction and execution is close to 16 years. At that point, with an already low chance of receiving the sentence in the first place, the repercussion is way too abstract to have a real effect on people’s criminal actions. All in all, what multiple repeated studies and meta-analyses show is “there is not the slightest credible statistical evidence that capital punishment reduces the rate of homicide” or other severe crimes (Donohue).
This time frame is also responsible for another argument against capital punishment: it is exorbitantly expensive. Over the entire time between sentencing and execution, the government is spending substantial funds for longer trials, more rigorous legal teams, specific jury selection, higher security incarceration for the inmate, the inmate’s many appeals, etc. All of this amounts to a “death penalty that is more expensive in almost every aspect”, with some estimates bringing this total up to 10 times more “than simply incarcerating a prisoner for the entirety of [their] life” (McFarland) (HG.org).
So why not simply accelerate the process? Bring the time frame down “in-view” for would-be-offenders and reduce the cost of the process? Well, all this would do is accelerate the speed at which the process must move through checks and balances, thereby increasing the rate of false convictions and false executions, which as we saw was already appallingly high in the first place.
Finally, despite public perception, capital punishment does not provide greater catharsis for the families and loved ones of the victims. While it is often cited (and understandable to believe), putting to death the offender does not usually provide finality or conclusion. Evidence points to the opposite likely being true. As mentioned above, the process of having someone executed is a long one, filled with appeals and new developments that make the process quite unpredictable. This is not conducive to healing, but rather to keep the event and the perpetrator constantly in the mind of the grieving. Rather, with its much shorter time frame and more predictable nature, regular sentencing is a lot more beneficial in this respect.
All in all, in analyzing most aspects of capital punishment, one rapidly comes to see how it falls short in almost all respects. The debate about the morality of retributive justice is philosophically rich. However, when it comes to reality, the data is clear. The world would certainly be better if we left capital punishment behind.
Donohue, J. J. (2009). Estimating the Impact of the Death Penalty on Murder. UC Berkeley: Berkeley Program in Law and Economics. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1gk0r77m
Donohue, John. “There’s No Evidence That Death Penalty Is a Deterrent against Crime.” The Conversation, 14 Sept. 2018, theconversation.com/theres-no-evidence-that-death-penalty-is-a-deterrent-against-crime-43227.
Grisham, John. “Chicago Tribune.” Chicagotribune.com, 2018, www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-innocent-prisoners-innocence-project-death-row-dna-testing-prosecutors-0315-story.html.
“Here’s Why It Takes so Long to Execute a Death Row Inmate.” Thv11.com, www.thv11.com/article/news/local/heres-why-it-takes-so-long-to-execute-a-death-row-inmate/91-430235541#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20Bureau%20of.
Kovandzic, Tomislav V., et al. “Deterrence and Executions: Does the Death Penalty Save Lives?” American Society of Criminology, University of Texas at Dallas, 2009.
Marilyn Peterson Armour and Mark S. Umbreit, Assessing the Impact of the Ultimate Penal Sanction on Homicide Survivors: A Two State Comparison, 96 Marq. L. Rev. 1 (2012). Available at: http://scholarship.law.marquette.edu/mulr/vol96/iss1/3
McFarland, Torin (2016) "The Death Penalty vs. Life Incarceration: A Financial Analysis," Susquehanna University Political Review: Vol. 7 , Article 4.
Peek. “DNA Evidence Is Less Reliable than the Public Perception.” Www.peekandtoland.com, 25 Jan. 2018, www.peekandtoland.com/dna-evidence-less-reliable-people-believe/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
Tarm, Michael, and Michael Kunzelman. “Trump Administration Carries out 13th and Final Execution.” AP NEWS, 15 Jan. 2021, apnews.com/article/donald-trump-wildlife-coronavirus-pandemic-crime-terre-haute-28e44cc5c026dc16472751bbde0ead50.
Webb, Sam, et al. “Which Countries Have the Death Penalty and How Many People Are Executed Every Year?” The Sun, 4 Dec. 2020, www.thesun.co.uk/news/2525739/countries-death-penalty-how-many-people-executed-world/#:~:text=As%20of%202020%2C%20a%20total. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
“Which Is Cheaper, Execution or Life in Prison without Parole?” Hg.org, 2019, www.hg.org/legal-articles/which-is-cheaper-execution-or-life-in-prison-without-parole-31614.
Yoshida-Butryn, Carly. “51% of Canadians Support Return of Capital Punishment for Murder Convictions, Poll Suggests.” British Columbia, 3 Mar. 2020, bc.ctvnews.ca/51-of-canadians-support-return-of-capital-punishment-for-murder-convictions-poll-suggests-1.4837434.